At least 12.5% of Western Massachusetts residents are living below the poverty line, and that number is growing.
by William Vancour, Communications Intern
Lately, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been in the spotlight as some Republican presidential hopefuls try to blame entitlement programs and those who receive their benefits for America’s deficit problem. Specifically, Newt Gingrich has made some comments about the program in an attempt to attack President Obama, calling him the “best food stamp president in American history,” while Rick Santorum chose to make it an issue of race when he stated “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money, I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” (nytimes). These comments bring long-held stigma about food stamps and food stamp recipients to the forefront of the nation’s awareness, but do not reflect the facts about SNAP.
While it is true that the number of food stamp recipients has risen over the past few years, this can be primarily attributed to the financial collapse and recession that began in 2007. As millions of Americans find themselves out of work and unable to make ends meet, programs like SNAP exist to help soften the blow, keeping people from having to choose between paying for necessities like rent, heat, or medical bills, and buying food. In our current economic climate, the benefits provided by SNAP are invaluable as an anti-poverty measure. With a current U.S. unemployment rate at 8.5% as of December 2011 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), SNAP/food stamps can make a world of difference, preventing individuals from encountering further hardships and falling deeper into food insecurity.
As it stands, the program is designed to fluctuate along with economic conditions and the needs of the public: as unemployment grows, so does the SNAP program. In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that food stamps helped to keep 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010. But the recession isn’t the only factor that contributed to the increase in food-stamp participants; rather, it was a 2002 Bush administration initiative that led to an increased participation among eligible households. In 2002, only 48 percent of those households who qualified for food stamps received them, compared to 78 percent of qualifying households in 2009 (businessweek).
More than just helping individuals in need, the SNAP program has proven to be an effective means of economic stimulus, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that $5 in food assistance produces $9.20 in both local and state economic activity (DesMoines register). In Western Mass., these federal dollars go directly to farmers, small businesses, and local grocers, who in turn pay their employees, further stimulating the economy. Secondly, the recent comments by both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum about SNAP and race are untrue and misleading. During a recent debate, Gingrich said: “I’m prepared – if the N.A.A.C.P. invites me – I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks, and not be satisfied with food stamps.” (newyorker). This remark, along with the similar statement made by Rick Santorum, demonstrates the false notion that African-Americans are the primary recipients of SNAP benefits. The truth of the matter is that 49% of SNAP recipients are white, while blacks comprise 26% of recipients and Latinos 20% of recipients (nytimes).
Here at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts we work to increase participation in this important federal nutrition program for everyone who needs it, and ensure that all eligible households have access to the food they need. SNAP is currently underutilized in Massachusetts, and we believe it is one of the most effective ways for households to avoid chronic hunger. For those interested in applying to SNAP benefits, we provide assistance during the application process. For more information about our SNAP outreach or how to access benefits, visit our SNAP outreach and enrollment page.